As part of my research for Asexuality in Manga and More, a lecture panel on asexuality in Japanese media, I looked into asexual and aromantic spectrum interpretations of anime and manga characters. Such interpretations are usually referred to as headcanon, “a fan’s personal, idiosyncratic interpretation of canon.” Occasionally I would find overlap in popular asexual headcanons and gay headcanons for the same character, such as Makoto Sunakawa in My Love Story. Sometimes this overlap means a character simultaneously interpreted as asexual and gay, or a character widely interpreted as aroace (both aromantic and asexual) or as gay. I wasn’t a stranger to these fandom activities before my research, as I have my own aro/ace/gay headcanons and enjoy reading those of others.
However, the conversations around asexual and aromantic spectrum headcanons, especially asexual ones, has changed in recent years. More and more, reading a gay or widely considered gay character as asexual (aroace or not) has been looked down on. The yuri manga Bloom Into You by Nio Nakatani has long been discussed in terms of asexual and aromantic identity, and the anime adaptation this year has brought new attention to it. While others may argue over the “correct” interpretation, I find differences in headcanons say more about what experiences have in common than which one is right.
Bloom Into You follows a high school girl named Yuu Koito who has never fallen in love, and believes she never will based on her apathy to a boy confessing his feelings for her. When she overhears an upperclassman named Touko Nanami turn down a love confession because she plans to never date, Yuu thinks she’s found a kindred spirit. However, soon after getting to know each other Touko admits she’s falling for Yuu. They enter a physically intimate relationship, well aware Yuu may never reciprocate. There’s a lot to unpack here.
The alienation Yuu experiences from romance fiction and confusion over what love should feel like is one aromantic and asexual people may know all too well. For aromantic people, there are no romantic feelings to speak of. For asexual people who are not aromantic, romance is so equivocated with sexual desire by society it may be hard to recognize. Touko’s indifference to romance until a specific person may ring true as well. However, lesbians (or bi, pan, etc. women) who are neither can also feel alienated from romance and sexuality in society due to heteronormativity and lesbophobia. After all, the only people who had confessed to Yuu and Touko and presumably the only gender of partners they had considered before were boys.
Of course, these identities aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m asexual and I like women, for one. In the 2016 Asexual Community Census, respondents were asked to select one sexual orientation label they most closely identify with from bisexual, gay, lesbian, only asexual, other, pansexual, queer, straight, or unsure. Of the respondents who most identified as asexual in a previous question 12.0% selected pansexual, 11.7% bisexual, 5.0% lesbian, 3.0% gay, and 1.1% queer for a total of 32.8% same-gender attraction labels. (Results from the 2017 and 2018 Asexual Community Census have not been shared yet.) Insisting Yuu or Touko can only be read as either lesbian or aroace would erase the lives of these people. When a conversation involves two groups of people, it’s ideal to center the people who fall into both groups.
The fact Bloom Into You is yuri, a romance genre, and Yuu seems to slowly develop romantic feelings for Touko doesn’t mean they can only be interpreted as lesbian. They may be both asexual and gay, demisexual, aromantic spectrum, or more. Of course, a headcanon can be just for fun. Even if never explicitly so, it doesn’t mean aromantic and asexual people can’t relate to those characters. In fact, an asexual and aromantic character relates to Yuu’s experience within the story. When Yuu tells her classmate Seiji Maki she can’t fall in love with people well into her arrangement with Touko, he assumes she’s as uninterested in having a romantic relationship as he is. Maki explains that he enjoys seeing other people in relationships the same way he likes to watch a movie, but wouldn’t want to play a part himself. The two briefly think they’ve found common ground, but the way Yuu describes her life before and after Touko makes him doubt that.
Through Maki, Bloom Into You shows that Yuu falling in love doesn’t reflect everyone who thinks they won’t. They may not have been exactly the same as they once thought, but they’re similar enough to understand each other. Yuu’s similar experience makes her accept Maki, and she doesn’t judge him for his disinterest in dating. Maki’s not going to settle down romantically, like the many aromantic people out there, and I doubt Yuu will suddenly believe he has to once she realizes her own feelings and their difference. The story also includes lesbian characters like classmate Sayaka Saeki and teacher Riko Hakozaki to show characters certain of and secure in their attraction to women.
Yuu and Touko fall somewhere in the middle as Nakatani explores ideas of romance and sexuality, so it’s no wonder their fictional experiences resonate with people on multiple ends of spectrums. The identity headcanons readers and viewers have for characters are often ones they share. In that case I believe aromantic, asexual, and/or lesbian audience members relating to the same character(s) say more about what we have in common in than our differences. Ultimately heteronormativity and amatonormativity leaves many people without a framework for their feelings and identity, which we see in Yuu. We don’t have to fight each other, especially over headcanons. No matter what identity, we can support and accept each other like Yuu and Maki.
If you enjoyed this article, you can support me with a tip by buying me a coffee. Thank you! Keep an eye out for my upcoming post Asexuality in Manga and More, based on a lecture panel I hosted with a friend at Kumoricon 2018, for more about asexuality in Japanese media.